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Drought Contingency Planning in the Colorado River Basin

June 07, 2018
by John Weisheit

Lake Mead reservoir level in 2018
Lake Mead reservoir level in 2018

By Henry Brean of Las Vegas Review Journal

The proposed Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) currently being debated by officials in Arizona calls for the following state-by-state cuts based on the water level in Lake Mead.

  • Current Elevation at Lake Mead: 1,083 feet above sea level
  • Desired minimal elevation of Lake Mead: 1,045 feet

The DCP revised Shortage Declarations would occur on January 1, of any given year until January 1, 2026, between elevations of 1,090 and 1,045 feet:

  • Nevada: 8,000 acre-feet.
  • Arizona: 192,000

At or below 1,045 and above 1,040 feet:

  • Nevada: 10,000 acre-feet
  • Arizona: 240,000
  • California: 200,000

At or below 1,040 feet:

  • Nevada: 10,000 acre-feet
  • Arizona: 240,000
  • California: starts at 250,000 and increases by 50,000 for each additional 5-foot drop in the lake.

One acre-foot of water will supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for just over one year.



Since February 2014 (Memo to initiate Drought Contingency Planning) the water agencies of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin have been immersed into a program called Drought Contingency Planning (DCP) and for reasons that the federal government made it very clear that failure to comply would result in a direct intervention by the Secretary of Interior. This statement occurred at the end of year 2015 (news clip). Why the 4-year delay? To various degrees, all the states have issues to work out, but the state that is dragging its feet the most, and for reasons that they have the most to lose, is Arizona. Why? To get federal authorization for the construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in 1968, Arizona agreed to take a low priority water right because Congress was aware that the water demand for this project might incite water shortages at a future time.

Fifty years have since passed and mandatory cuts to Arizona's water supply are no longer a distant threat (graphic). Should Arizona approve the Lower Basin DCP in year 2018, a shortage declaration for the state will occur on January 1, 2019, and for the reason that preliminary discussions between the states of the lower basin have included raising the elevation for a shortage declaration at Lake Mead from elevation 1075 feet to 1090 feet. It is not unreasonble to say that Arizona will not sign the agreement until after January 1, 2019.

Incidentally, on July 31, 2018, the elevation of Lake Mead was at 1077 feet, and on June 30, 2016, the elevation of Lake Mead was at 1073 feet.

Note: According to the current guidelines, if the elevation of Lake Mead is exactly 1075 feet on January 1st of any given year between 2008 and 2026, a shortage is officially declared; to be specific, the first of three shortage tiers. The second tier is 1050 feet, and the third tier is 1025 feet. For each tier the reduction is significantly reduced. The maximum carrying capacity of the CAP aquaduct is 1.6 million acre-feet per year.

Meanwhile, the Upper Basin states are about to repeat the same mistake as Arizona with their proposed water projects that carry junior water rights, which will be discussed in more detail, below.

Note: When Lake Mead reaches elevation 1020 feet, it means Lake Powell is at or below elevation 3525 feet, which is the elevation the Upper Basin DCP hopes to maintain, even at the cost of draining the contents of upstream reservoirs, for example, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir and Navajo Reservoir.

This latest sense of urgency was not a first. In 2004 the reservoir level of Lake Powell was critically low, and to the degree that hydropower production was diminished by 40%

Then Interior Secretary Gale Norton insisted the seven states of the basin develop a shortage sharing agreement in case the situation worsened and, if they did not succeed, she promised to do it for them. Two and a half years later (2007) the states and the feds signed an agreement called Interim Guidelines. The word interim refers to the expiration of the Guidelines at 12 am on January 1, 2026. Now, some ten years later, the conditions of the reservoirs have not improved. In fact, the snow melts of 2012 and 2013 were dismally low, and the chance of shortages arriving by the end of the decade increased to 50%. Thus, the DCP process began in 2014 and 12-years before the expiration of Interim Guidelines, which was the intended action to solve the problem.

Here are three fatal flaws about 2007 Interim Guidelines, which are paraphrased and explained, as follows:

(1) The water savings stored in Lake Mead is voluntary and not mandatory, and the states will not comply until it becomes absolutely necessary. Intentional savings by the states to stabilize Lake Mead did not occur earnestly until a few years ago and with Arizona lagging behind California and Nevada. Mexico will participate, once the DCP is completed. The Native Americans have also pledged assistance, once the DCP is completed. We would agree that this new position is comforting, but we insist that was the appropriate position to take in 2007.

(2) Despite these guidelines, the reservoir supply at Lake Mead will continue to decline beyond 2026. In 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation believed the chances of shortage through 2026 was in the range of 1% to 2% (newsclip). There is a possible 65% chance that shortages will officially be declared by the Secretary of Interior in 2020 (June 2018 "stress test" presentation by USBR). Thus, Interim Guidelines has indeed proven to be a half-measure; too little and too late.

(3) Interim Guidelines allows the upper basin states to annually divert an additional 1 million acre-feet of water, which will eventually compromise water storage at Lake Powell. So far, the upper basin states have yet to develop more water diversion projects, but projects are currently in the permitting stage. They include, for example, Lake Powell Pipeline, a pipeline to Colorados Front Range, Gross Reservoir expansion, Windy Gap Firming Project, Fontenelle Reservoir expansion, Green River nuclear generating station, strip mining for oil sands and kerogen shale, solution mining for potash, and many others. Though these projects have been neutralized, for the moment, by intense campaigns from opposition movements, the hydropower units at Glen Canyon Dam are nearing a shut-down situation. For example, the goal of Drought Contingency Planning is to make sure Lake Powell never goes below elevation 3,525 feet. For the last two years, the average total amount of water above 3,525 feet was about 7 million acre-feet (MAF). According to Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell must discharge 9 MAF in 2018, which is also the most probable discharge for 2019, for a two-year total of 18 MAF. Some back-of-the-envelope arthritic can help us understand how truly dire the situation is: 18 MAF minus 7 MAF is 11 MAF, and therefore 11 MAF must enter Lake Powell next year to keep the reservoir stable. Will nature supply Lake Powell with that much needed 11 MAF? Time will tell, but for water year 2018, nature only supplied 6 MAF (this amount is included in the total volume above 3525 for water year 2018) (July 2018 presentation by USBR). Should next years inflow imitate years 2002, 2003, 2012, or 2013, the goals of the proposed DCPs will be challenged immediately.

We understand how grim this narrative presents itself. However, thinking about system failure with percentage points as high as 65% for an economy that produces 1.4 trillion dollars annually for 40 million people is not easy to dismiss. To be fair, timely leadership has emerged from Secretary of Interior, however, the states appear to be burning the furniture to stay warm.



  • January 2017 - Order #3344 from the Secretary of Interior. Jewell.
  • How bad can it get? DOWNLOAD this June 2018 powerpoint presentation by Reclamation and Arizona Dept. of Water Resources
  • On The Colorado produced the following TABLE that answers this question: How much water is left in Lakes Powell and Mead before the safe yield is exhausted and jeopardy begins for water and hydropower contracts?
  • PHOTO of a Lake Mead at Hoover Dam at elevation ~1075 in 2015. Reclamation.


From a fact sheet provided by Colorado River Water Conservancy District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado:

The seven Colorado River basin states and the US Bureau of Reclamation are working on a contingency plan to avoid the unacceptable consequences of the continuing drought. The Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy and Front Range Water Council are jointly investigating the feasibility of a water bank. The water bank is a tool that might be used with either the contingency or insurance concepts.

There are many overlapping issues so its easy to get confused. This FAQ answers many of the most frequent questions.

1. What is the contingency plan, and why is one needed?

  • Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced a prolonged drought. There have been a few wet years  2008, 2010, and 2014, but the remaining years have been dry. 2002 was one of the driest years on record and 2012-2013 were the driest consecutive two years on record.
  • Consequently, to meet demands, the basins reservoirs have been drawn down by about 30 million acre feet. If the drought conditions continue, Lake Powell could drop below the elevation necessary to produce power (3,490) or at about 4 million acre feet of storage).
  • The goal of the contingency plan is to avoid water levels in Lake Powell from falling below the minimum level and still produce power.
  • If Lake Powell no longer produced electricity, up to $120 million per year in power revenues would be lost. These revenues cover the operation of power generation and the transmission grid; repay the federal treasury for the construction of these reservoirs; and, cover the costs of critical environmental recovery programs such as the San Juan and Upper Colorado River Basin endangered fishes recovery programs and the Salinity Control Program. Additionally, federal power customers could see their power costs skyrocket.

2. What will be included in the contingency plan?
Three basic elements:

  • a. Extended operations. Federal reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell  Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo Reservoirs  would release additional water for storage and use in Lake Powell.
  • b. System augmentation. Enhanced cloud seeding and accelerated removal of non-native vegetation such as tamarisk.
  • c. Demand management. Additional conservation by municipal and irrigation users and deficit irrigation or fallowing by agricultural users.
  • The extended operations and augmentation elements will be the first lines of defense. The demand management element is only a concept at this point. None of the four Upper Division (WY, UT, CO and NV) states has agreed to implement demand management. There are currently no management mechanisms in place to actually implement demand management.
  • In the Lower Basin (NV, AZ, CA), possible actions include: better managing over-deliveries, improving system conveyance, reducing or eliminating groundwater banking, and assigning reservoir evaporation to lower basin states.

3. How will extended operations of the upstream Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) units work?

  • Under the proposed contingency plan, Reclamation and the Upper Division states would evaluate the risk of Lake Powell dropping below minimum power. If action is deemed necessary, the parties would consider if adequate water is available in upstream reservoirs for release to Lake Powell. Because of its size and inflow, it appears that Flaming Gorge Reservoir has the most flexibility.
  • As we envision the contingency plan today, the demand management option would only be used once all of our flexibility with extended operations has been exhausted and the forecast is for continued drought.

4. How will the 2007 Interim Guidelines affect the contingency plan?

  • Because releases from Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) are controlled by the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the contingency plan will be specifically tailored to work in tandem with them. They are interim because they are only in effect through Water Year 2026. Thus, the contingency plan is interim as well.
  • Under the Interim Guidelines, Powells and Meads operations are coordinated. Releases are based on forecasted, year-end reservoir levels in Powell and Mead. Lake Powell is divided into four tiers; Lake Mead is divided into a number of different tiers. The critical levels at Lake Mead are 1,075`, the level at which shortages are imposed on lower basin water users and 1,025`. 1,025`is considered uncomfortably close to the 1,000` level that cuts off Las Vegas access to Lake Mead water.
  • One of the challenges for the contingency plan will be to keep enough water in Lake Powell to maintain hydropower production, while at the same time not releasing so much upstream water into Powell that it would bump up releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead under the Guidelines.

5. What are the chances that we will need to implement the contingency plan by 2026?

  • For the Upper Basin, it all depends on future hydrologic conditions. If dry conditions continue, it is almost certain that we will need to implement the contingency plan. However, if hydrologic conditions return to the longer term average, then the chances are still real, but much lower.
    Whether or not the drought continues is a difficult prediction. Based on the 1906 to present observed record, we are in the longest drought of record. However, looking at the longer term, reconstructed natural flow record (using tree rings), droughts such as the current one are rare but not unprecedented.
  • The bottom line is that under most hydrologic futures a contingency plan is necessary. If we prepare one, but dont have to use it, we will consider ourselves fortunate.

6. Why should the Upper Basin be concerned about whats happening in the Lower Basin?

  • The 2007 Interim Guidelines interconnect the operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead,. If the Lower Basin reduces its use of Colorado River water, less water needs to be released from Lake Mead, and under the Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell releases will average less. This interconnection between Lake Mead and Lake Powell is why the seven basin states and the Department of the Interior view the contingency plan as a basin-wide effort.

7. What is meant by the Lower Basins structural deficit?

  • In the Upper Basin were primarily at risk from continued drought. The Lower Basin is threatened by both dry hydrology and the structural deficit caused by over use. In a normal year, which is defined as releasing 8.23 million acre feet (maf) from Lake Powell, about 9.0 maf flows into Lake Mead (8.23 maf from Powell, the rest from tributary inflow between Powell and Mead). However, demands in the lower basin range from 10.0 to 10.5 million acre feet. Thus, in the Upper Basin, we could experience a string of average years (like 2014) and Lake Powell would continue to slowly recover, but in the Lower Basin, the demand continues to exceed supply and Lake Mead levels keep falling.
  • Water users in the Lower Basin fully understand this structural deficit problem and are actively engaged in difficult discussions to solve it.

8. Is the Lower Basins structural deficit a threat to the Upper Basin?

  • The practical implications for the entire basin of continued overuse in the Lower Basin are real and significant. If Lake Mead drops below 1,025`, the 2007 Interim Guidelines require re-consultation.
  • From a compact perspective, there is virtually no chance that the Lower Division states or the Interior Secretary could use the 1922 Compact to require a cutback or curtailment of uses in the Upper Basin because of overuse in the Lower Basin. The more likely scenario is that to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below 1,000`, current water users in the Lower Basin would have to conserve or save additional water beyond the 500,000 acre foot cutback required by the Interim Guidelines.
  • It is possible that the Upper Division states would be asked to provide additional stored water that would be considered surplus, but even this option should only be considered as a last resort.
  • Additionally, if (perhaps when) Lake Mead approaches 1,000`, there will be great political pressure for expanded water marketing. Traditionally, the Basin States and water agencies have adamantly opposed efforts to market water between the upper and lower basins.
  • The best certainty for all users on the Colorado River system is full reservoirs. One method the Basins municipalities could use to maintain storage in system reservoirs would be to acquire large amounts of agricultural lands and retiring or changing crops on these lands to reduce water use. But such transfers of water use, even temporarily, would have dramatic impacts on the economy, land use and lifestyles of the basin.







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